The Canadian Blood Services is taking steps to reduce a deferral period for men who have sex with men from a year to three months.
A deferral period is the amount of time one has to wait between certain activities and donating blood. For men who have sex with men, one has to wait a year after intercourse to donate. The Canadian Blood Services has requested of Health Canada that the period be reduced further, to three months.
Gerry Croteau heads up the Gilbert Centre, an organization devoted to HIV education along with LGBTQ community and their families, and says the deferral period was borne of ignorance. “The original ban came in 1978, prior to the HIV/AID epidemic, it was there. We feel, and some felt back then, that it was based on homophobic criteria more than concern for the blood supply in Canada.”
In the 70’s, gay men could not donate blood at all, ever. That was reduced to a five year waiting period in 2013, and then one year in 2016.
The deferral period is in place, in part, to protect the public trust in the blood supply; in the early 80’s about 2,000 Canadians were infected with HIV through tainted blood products in a time when donated blood was not screened for HIV. Croteau admits there is still a high prevalence of HIV within the gay community. “About 40 per cent of new HIV infections within Canada are still among men who have sex with men. Be they identifiable as gay, bisexual, or married men, HIV/AIDS still plays a portion of that reason for restricting donations.”
Today, every donation is screened for not only HIV/AIDS, but also Hepatitis B & C, Syphilis, West Nile Virus, and Human T-Cell Leukemia Virus. The blood passes through a litany of other tests before being put to use. You can learn about the testing done through the Canadian Blood Services website.
Regardless of the time one must wait, Croteau points out one aspect that remains a sticking point is being asked about sexuality at all. “It’s discriminatory… men are asked to disclose their sexual orientation in a very public space, right? When you give blood, it’s not behind closed doors, it’s very open.”
He does add the reduction is a positive step. “We welcome anything that is going to be less stigmatizing and even less discriminatory than it is now.”
The Canadian Blood Services declined an interview, saying the request to reduce the deferral time is still being considered, but provided the statement below instead:
We certainly empathize with individuals who, for many different reasons, cannot give blood. We understand this may cause strong feelings and want to emphasize it is not intended as a negative reflection on any individual. Canadian Blood Services is exploring alternative screening approaches for blood donors, which could evolve the current eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men.
Today, men are eligible to give blood if it has been more than one year since their last sexual contact with another man. The one year waiting period was introduced in 2016 as an incremental step forward in updating the blood donation criteria based on the latest scientific evidence. But the work doesn’t stop there. New research is underway to generate the evidence required for low risk groups to be identified and included as eligible donors while maintaining the safety of the blood supply for patients.
That’s why Canadian Blood Services, in partnership with Héma-Québec and with funding from Health Canada, is supporting 15 research projects investigating various aspects of blood and plasma donors’ eligibility criteria and screening process. This research could evolve the current eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men.
Canadian Blood Services has also submitted a request to Health Canada to reduce the waiting period for men who have sex with men from one year to three months. We look forward to keeping the public updated on our progress.
Given its short shelf life, the need for blood is constant. Cancer patients, accident victims and people with blood disorders rely on blood transfusions every day. Less than four per cent of donors who are eligible give blood each year.
Donating blood isn’t the only way to help. There are many ways Canadian Blood Services and people who may not be eligible to give blood can work together to make a valuable contribution to patients in need. These opportunities include volunteering, making a financial donation, registering as a stem cell and organ donor, and by encouraging others to give blood.Canadian Blood Services